Concerns About the Lottery


A lottery is a way to raise money by selling tickets that contain numbers drawn at random. Those who have numbers on their tickets win prizes, normally cash. The practice has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. However, winning the lottery is not a sure thing. It is a form of gambling, and people can become addicted to it. In addition, the profits from the lottery are often used by corrupt politicians to fund their political campaigns. This practice has led to a number of concerns about the lottery.

Despite these concerns, most states continue to run their lotteries. They do so by creating a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery, rather than licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits. Then they start with a modest number of relatively simple games. As the demand for tickets increases, they progressively add new games. The result is a system that is increasingly complex and difficult to administer.

In the early history of America, lotteries were frequently used to finance public works projects like paving streets and building wharves. In the 18th century, George Washington sponsored a lottery to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains. And like almost everything else in colonial-era America, they were tangled up with slavery in unpredictable ways. One enslaved man purchased his freedom by winning the South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

As for how lottery profits are spent, a large percentage is used to cover operating costs and to pay out winnings. The remaining amount is usually divided into a few very large prizes and many smaller ones. Those who play the lottery tend to be attracted by very large prizes, so sales increase dramatically for rollover drawings. However, potential bettors also demand a chance to win smaller prizes, so many state lotteries have been promoting the sale of scratch-off tickets and other low-cost products.

Because state lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues, they use marketing strategies that would be familiar to anyone who has watched a Snickers commercial or played a video game. They present misleading information about the odds of winning; they advertise in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino; and they encourage addiction to their games by using a variety of psychological tricks.

Lottery critics also point to the fact that the majority of players and revenue are drawn from middle-income neighborhoods, while far fewer proportionally come from high- or low-income areas. And they argue that the lottery promotes a false image of wealth, since its big prize is based on an annuity that pays out the total sum in equal annual installments over three decades. Inflating the value of this prize exacerbates the inequality, they say. Lottery supporters counter that these problems are exaggerated and that the lottery is a valuable source of “painless” revenue. But they do not offer a persuasive argument about how much of the income generated by the lottery actually gets to the poor.